What can you learn from death?

Is it morbid to dwell on your own demise or can it enrich the quality of your life?


What can you learn from death?

Woody Allen’s famous quotation: 'I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens' could perhaps sum up how many of us feel about death.  

But a new movement of ‘Death Cafés’, where groups of strangers gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death, is encouraging us to not only think about our demise but to positively dwell on it.

The first Death Café was set up by a Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz and the idea was brought to the UK by Jon Underwood in 2011. 'Western society has long outsourced discussions about death to doctors, nurses, priests and undertakers. The result is that we have lost control of one of the most significant events we ever have to face,' he says.

The non-profit movement is flourishing, with Death Cafés being hosted across the world including in the US, Australia, Brazil and Canada. Their aim? Not as morbid as it sounds: ‘To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'.  

And isn’t it probably true that we mostly choose to live in a fog of denial about death, pretending we have all the time in the world to make the changes we need to be happy? But when we become aware of the fragility of life, it can act as a wake–up call, encouraging us to live life to the full. 

Contemplating death is also an ancient spiritual practice. Buddhist monks have historically meditated beside a corpse to remind them that nothing is permanent and the route to pain is to try to hold on, to ‘grasp’ at life – trying to make the insecure secure, the impermanent permanent.

If popping into your local Death Café sounds a bit too much, here are five books that might help you contemplate the passing of your days so you can make the most of them:

1. One Month To Live: Thirty Days To A No-Regrets Life (Three Rivers Press, £8.99)

A surprise US best-seller, with Kerry and Chris Shook, a Christian husband-and-wife team, posing the question: ‘If you had only one month to live, what would you change?’ The authors challenge you to make the most of it, to open your eyes and live each day with enthusiasm and meaning. The first page has a contract to sign called 'The One-Month-To-Live Challenge' and then the authors coach you day by day to transform your life by asking that one powerful question in all areas of your life. 

2. In Love With Death by Satish Modi (Birlinn, £8.39)

(Review by Josh Barrie)

'Death is the inevitable fate of every single person on earth', writes Satish Modi, in this book. Modi, a successful businessman and philanthropist from India, wrote In Love With Death with one overarching premise: that whatever our situation or aspirations in life, it’s important for all of us to accept our own passing. In doing so, he suggests, we can 'free ourselves to live as well and fully as possible, guided by the principles of goodness, love and compassion'.

Essentially, Modi proposes that while death is powerful and at times sad, it may also be embraced, or at the very least accepted, in order to better harness life and what it can bring.

3. The Denial Of Death by Ernest Becker (Souvenir Press, £14.99)

Winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize and the culmination of Ernest Becker's life’s work, The Denial Of Death seeks to understand the meaning of life. Exploring our refusal to acknowledge our own mortality, Becker sheds new light on humanity and the meaning of life itself – looking at the unconscious motivations of how we find purpose in all that we do. A classic that has been reprinted this year.

4. We Need To Talk About Grief by Annie Broadbent (Piatkus, £12.99, published November 2014)

(Review by Lauren Hadden)

‘Death and grief have become today’s taboo,’ says Annie Broadbent in her new book – and she should know. Her experiences after the death of her mother led Broadbent down a path that resulted in hospice-volunteering, talks at ‘Death salons’ and ultimately writing her new book We Need To Talk About Grief. If you’ve ever felt awkward at a funeral, read this book.

5. On Death And Dying by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (Scribner Book Company £9.88)

American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her 1969 classic inspired by her work with terminally ill patients and the lack of curriculum in medical schools on how to work with the dying. Dr Kübler-Ross first introduced and explored the now-famous idea of the five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

With simple interviews and conversations, she gives the reader a better understanding of how imminent death affects the patient, the professionals who serve the patient, and the patient's family, bringing hope, solace, and peace of mind to all involved.

Photograph: iStock